Improving Climbing Ability in Road Cycling

Cycling up hill can be a struggle, but here are some tips on how you can improve.

A cyclist and title 'Improving Climbing Ability in Road Cycling'

It’s something that is quite a common hurdle for newbie cyclists to get over in mountain biking and road cycling. When all I wanted to do was race down the mountain bike trails when I was younger, the hills in between them would certainly stop me in my tracks. So I thought I would highlight a few things that have helped me improve climbing up hills. Dare I say it, but I actually enjoy it now.

Pacing

When ego’s are flying round on group rides you’ll tend to find the group stays together at fairly high speeds, but when it comes to hills the group falls apart. One thing that took me quite a long time to learn is pacing. That going steady and at your pace is the best thing you can do. Your body is ticking along at a steady pace all whilst making progress up the hill in question. You might have people speed past you and if they’re experienced cyclists you’ll probably not see them again on your ride. However, if they happen to be naive when it comes to climbing hills, you’ll probably find you’ll see them again some point up the hill hanging over their handle bars gasping for air.

The truth is if you go up a hill without stopping at your own pace, over time you’ll gradually get faster. Possibly without you even realising it. You’ve got to see the bigger picture, are you going to be much use if you burst out all of your energy on one climb on a ride, but then struggle to get home because you’re so tired? Hills take time and patience to get quicker at, so don’t stress about not being quick up them from the off-set.

Who You Ride With

That all lines me up fairly nicely for my next point, which is to look at who you’re riding with. Are they a lot stronger than you meaning you’re already tired by the time you get to those pesky hills? Having people to ride with at your own level means you can tackle those climbs together and spur each other on. It removes that stress of ‘oh they’re waiting ages for me to get to the top’.

A Positive Attitude

It sounds obvious, but it’s one thing you’re taught to pass on to any riders when you become a Breeze leader for British Cycling. Women are notorious for saying ‘sorry’ when they don’t feel good enough (sorry for any guys reading this). Don’t apologise for being what you feel is slow. You’re all out there keeping fit and getting your vitamin D, so what’s the stress?

You can fill your mind with ‘oh I don’t think I can do this’, or ‘just keep pedalling’. If you use the latter you’ll naturally see the difference it makes. I always find it’s often my mind that gives up before my body does.

Be Realistic

Having a positive mindset leads me onto the point of being realistic. Having a positive mind set alone going up a 35% climb probably isn’t really going to help. You have to be realistic with the climbs you want to tackle. Just take it steady and start off on hills with a steady gradient and gradually build it up to those steeper climbs.

When I was training for London Marathon (different sport I know) I kept my training really simple and broke it down to month by month. For example, I want to be able to run this distance by the end of the month. I did various races in the run up, such as a half-marathon, which acted as milestones in my journey to London. From a cycling perspective you can do something similar. Pick an event you’d like to do, for example a particularly hilly sportive and use that as your milestone. Pick an event you have enough time to train for and set a goal for each month in the run up to it. Some goal examples might be:

  • I want to ride X amount of hills in one ride
  • I want to ride a hill of X gradient by the end of July
  • I want to beat my time up X hill by the end of August

Setting goals that are easy to assess improvements against are the easiest goals to follow.

Bike Set Up

This goes for a lot of things in cycling really and something so many get wrong. You go to get your new bike and spend all your savings on it, but then can’t afford to get a decent bike fit. Bike shops might be able to get you the right size, but it’s important to find a bike shop or company which will help set it up correctly for you. A good bike fit can make sure you’re using all the correct muscles, be comfortable on the bike and in turn get up those hills!

After speaking to a Lead Bike Fitter at Boardman Performance, Bianca Broadbent, her slant on the subject of bike fits was to also add conditioning work/training in the cycling position into the equation. “Making sure the body (and machine) are strong is crucial to power up those climbs when you need to work at those lower cadences.” 

Under the umbrella of bike set-up also comes the concept of gearing. To put it simply:

  • More teeth at the back, less teeth on the front makes your gear ratio easier.
  • Less teeth on the back, more teeth on the front makes your gear ratio harder.

Generally bikes come with a compact chain set, which means you already have a lower climbing gear. However, some older bikes might not be set up this way. Your local bike shop should be able to help if you’re thinking about changing what gear ratio your bike has.

Fuelling

Prior to London Marathon I was notoriously bad for nutrition whilst out on my bike. I’d forget to drink or eat, then wonder why my body was resenting turning the pedals. It’s a fairly simple thing and one we all know, that for our bodies to work we need fuel. It’s not until you start to be mindful of nutrition when doing sport that you’ll start to see the difference. During London I was taking sips of water regularly, as well as other nutrition like Clif Shot Blocks and Clif Bars, but one of the biggest things was making sure I drink.

Since going back to cycling post-London Marathon it’s eye-opening now I’ve got improved nutrition habits. It also comes down to when you take that nutrition in as well. Eating half or all of a Clif bar right at the bottom of a climb is completely pointless as it won’t help you get up the hill at all. On a ride back at the start of the year when I knew a long (10 minute +) climb was coming I ate a Clif bar around 10 to 15 minutes before we got to it. That way, the bar was already being processes by my body by the time I got to the climb.

I’m not a nutritionist obvious, but I’m currently reading Training Food by Renee McGregor to improve my nutrition on and off the bike.

I hope these pointers help you on your mission to tackle those climbs that make a habit of popping up when we’re out cycling. We don’t need to worry about tackling them as fast as the pro’s just yet!

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13 thoughts on “Improving Climbing Ability in Road Cycling

  1. Andy Dawson says:

    Hi Lucy, I’m always interested in hill climbing techniques – pacing is so important, and people have different pace styles. A mate of mine attacks hills hard at the base, races ahead and then runs out of steam near the top. I set a slower, steady pace at the foot of the hill and can catch him up just as he crests.
    If he sticks with me and goes slow at the start he looses his advantage and fades. If I race after him at the start, I blow up half-way and have to stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lucyslifeandbikes says:

      I think everyone has to learn about pacing the hard way. Short, snappy climbs I often sprint up purely because I enjoy it 😂 But then I also know my pace for longer climbs. Like Sa Calobra I did at the start of March…it didn’t tire me out as much as I thought!

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment too!

      Like

      • Jen says:

        I think there’s other things to consider too… Taking Sa Calobra as the example here, I’ve done the same ride a few times, setting off from Pollenca, heading up and over to the village at the bottom of Sa Calobra, having an hour or so for a sandwich and drink there before heading back the same way. On a hot sunny day it took me nearly twice as long as on a cooler overcast day. Part of that is hydration (i’d probably not drunk enough in the early part of the ride), part of that is how I cope with the heat (or rather, don’t), or part of it can be how much riding you’ve done in the days immediately before.

        what I’m saying is you need to know yourself and your riding fitness to start to understand your hill climbing. In one year I was targeting a big ride (200miles in 2 days, with an ascent equivalent to climbing Kilimanjaro from sea level), and I spent weeks and weeks just doing hill reps (literally multiple ascents and descents of the same smallish hill) and spin classes to improve my hill climbing and aerobic fitness. It was the most tedious riding I’ve done, but it paid dividends when I was able to enjoy the event right up the last fast and furious descent into the finish line on Day 2. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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